In the Summer of 2005, the press tent at Camp Fallujah, Iraq was a stone throw away from Fallujah surgical.
A few hundred yards further was the heli-pad the medevac helicopters used.
Most days I never heard the whomping sound of rotors beating against the tent–but then again, most days I was outside the wire with a platoon of grunts.
Of the almost 90 Marines in the Combined Arms Team/TOW Missile Platoon I was embedded with all of them came home alive.
Two–Steak and Dallas–came home with fragments of steel lodged in their arms. But Steak could still bench press 300 pounds two weeks later, even with the steel in his arm.
John has a few fragments in the back of his neck and a dastardly arrangement of scars.
Ali, our Iraqi interpreter, lost a leg and an arm in the same IED attack that gave Steak and Dallas the shrapnel on the last day of the last mission.
As I watched Baghdad ER last night, two thoughts kept running through my mind:
1. How many soldiers told the producers to “get that damn camera out of my face” and;
2. Why the constant focus on the injury and carnage of war?
I can guess the answer to #1 is ‘many’ and as to why the focus on the injury and carnage of war, that is a more complex answer.
I have no stomache for blood. I get queasy watching surgeries on the Discovery Channel. But, for a few producers, editors and photographers who can tolerate blood, producing Baghdad ER is very simple.
You are safely tucked away in the Green Zone and the dramatic action comes at you.
All you have to do is keep the camera rolling until you get enough soldiers willing to be photographed in the proper dramatic sequence.
Combine that with the the glib and gallows eloquence of an ER staff and you have some compelling TV.
If you have an anti-war tilt, it is a two-fer, simple production and a message you prefer.
But focusing on the carnage of war presents a one dimensional view of the war.
Except for cutaways of rolling down route Irish–”the most dangerous road in the world”–when nothing happened, the war became nothing but shrapnel wounds and lost limbs.
But I do not blame filmakers, they told the story they wanted to tell. A war, to be told in near real-time documentaries, would require several dozen crews.
While Baghdad ER had hours of tape with blood, I have hours of tape of Marines pulling the ‘Crazy 8′s’ and ‘Crazy 6′s’ on a screen line in the desert where the challenge was not going insane after staring at the same patch of dirt for days on end.
I have hours of tape of Marines gathering intel, raiding target houses, flex cuffing bad guys and giving toys to kids–which is also the real Iraq.
Perhaps an infantry platoon where everyone comes back the U.S. alive and intact is an anomaly.
But of the 750,000+ personnel who have moved through Iraq, only .3% have not come home and only 2.4% have been injured.
The first medevac for the platoon I was embedded with was from a Humvee wreck–a geological event, not operator error–as a hill gave way under the weight of the vechicle.
Another injury was from the sand–a piece of grit severly scratched a young Marines’ cornea.
A Lance Corporal got hit in the calf with a ricochet from a shot fired by one his own.
A few concussions and perforated ear drums
As we walked through a nameless village one night, the platoon sergeant said, “there is an inherent danger in the job.”
The Marines I was with accepted that danger, a few seemingly enjoyed it, but that is what makes Marines–Marines.
I for one hope HBO will use its clout and financial resources to continue backing documentaries about the war and find a few film makers willing to accept the inherent dangers of going outside the wire.
Moreover, I hope they will show the war even if the dangers never manifest themselves.
JD Johannes is a documentary film maker who spent 5 months in Iraq embedded with elements of his old Marine Corps unit. He blogs at facesfromthefront.com.